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The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Is there a special set of rights for children and young people?

Yes, the special set of rights for children and young people (18 years old and younger) is called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). On November 20th, 1989 the UNCRC was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Almost every country of the world eagerly ratified it throughout the next decade and it has become the most widely ratified human rights document in the world.

The UNCRC reflects a well-researched global consensus on what childhood should be and outlines the minimum standards for the healthy development of children and youth. It also recognizes children as rights holders for the first time and focuses on their specific needs. These rights are indivisible and inalienable—a child can neither give up nor lose his or her rights, regardless of behaviour, family context, or parental wishes.

Canada played a leading role in its development and ratified the Convention in 1991. Once countries ratify (agree to uphold) the convention they are legally bound to what it says and are obliged to review their domestic laws and practices regarding children and to make any changes needed to reach the minimum standards set by the Convention.

According to UNICEF Canada, an estimated 6 million children die each year from preventable causes, such as malnutrition and disease. Additionally, it is estimated that over 500 million children are victims of violence, exploitation and abuse annually (UNICEF Canada) and over 50% of the world’s refugees are children (UNHCR). While it is easy to think that we have it good here in Canada, Canadian children are not immune to inadequate or inappropriate living conditions. Many of Canada’s children experience poverty, poor nutrition, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, and more mild forms of child labour. Many of our refugee and immigrant children have experienced the trauma of war. (Thank you to Cape Breton University’s Child Rights Centre for giving permission for us to reproduce this question and answer.)

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, often understood to apply to children, has very limited applicability. The Canadian Charter of Rights and all human rights laws apply to children; however, the only time children are specifically mentioned in the Charter is in reference to a child’s right to receive an education in English or French. The Convention is important because, for the first time, children are recognized as rights holders. It also recognizes the specific, unique needs of children as they grow.

With rights come responsibilities. The Convention outlines the following responsibilities:

  • For children: to respect the rights of others.
  • For parents: to respect and provide for the rights of their children.
  • For governments: to support families and to respect and provide for the rights of children through laws, policies, and special programs.

There are 54 articles and 3 optional protocols in the Convention that outline child rights and the obligations of ‘duty bearers’ (adults and governments). You don’t have to memorize all the different rights in order to understand and uphold children’s rights. However, it is important to understand the 4 guiding principles:

  1. Non-discrimination. These rights are for all children. Children and youth have the right to be treated without discrimination and have the right to be who they are.
  2. Right to life, survival and development
  3. Best interests of the child
  4. Engaging children and youth by seeking their Participation in matters affecting them.

This is a simplified version of the UNCRC. It has been ratified by 195 countries (every country except the U.S.). The convention has 54 articles in total. Articles 43 to 54 are about how governments and international organizations should work to uphold children’s rights.

Article 1
Everyone under 18 has all these rights.

Article 2
You have the right to protection against discrimination. This means that nobody can treat you badly because of your colour, sex or religion, if you speak another language, have a disability, or are rich or poor.

Article 3
All adults should always do what is best for you.

Article 4
You have the right to have your rights made a reality by the government.

Article 5
You have the right to be given guidance by your parents and family.

Article 6
You have the right to life.

Article 7
You have the right to have a name and a nationality.

Article 8
You have the right to an identity.

Article 9
You have the right to live with your parents, unless it is bad for you.

Article 10
If you and your parents are living in separate countries, you have the right to get back together and live in the same place.

Article 11
You should not be kidnapped.

Article 12
You have the right to an opinion and for it to be listened to and taken seriously.

Article 13
You have the right to find out things and say what you think, through making art, speaking and writing, unless it breaks the rights of others.

Article 14
You have the right to think what you like and be whatever religion you want to be, with your parents’ guidance.

Article 15
You have the right to be with friends and join or set up clubs, unless this breaks the rights of others.

Article 16
You have the right to a private life. For instance, you can keep a diary that other people are not allowed to see.

Article 17
You have the right to collect information from the media – radios, newspapers, television, etc – from all around the world. You should also be protected from information that could harm you.

Article 18
You have the right to be brought up by your parents, if possible.

Article 19
You have the right to be protected from being hurt or badly treated.

Article 20
You have the right to special protection and help if you can’t live with your parents.

​Article 21
You have the right to have the best care for you if you are adopted or fostered or living in care.

Article 22
You have the right to special protection and help if you are a refugee. A refugee is someone who has had to leave their country because it is not safe for them to live there.

Article 23
If you are disabled, either mentally or physically, you have the right to special care and education to help you develop and lead a full life.

Article 24
You have a right to the best health possible and to medical care and to information that will help you to stay well.

Article 25
You have the right to have your living arrangements checked regularly if you have to be looked after away from home.

Article 26
You have the right to help from the government if you are poor or in need.

Article 27
You have the right to a good enough standard of living. This means you should have food, clothes and a place to live.

Article 28
You have the right to education.

Article 29
You have the right to education which tries to develop your personality and abilities as much as possible and encourages you to respect other people’s rights and values and to respect the environment.

Article 30
If you come from a minority group, because of your race, religion or language, you have the right to enjoy your own culture, practice your own religion, and use your own language.

Article 31
You have the right to play and relax by doing things like sports, music and drama.

Article 32
You have the right to protection from work that is bad for your health or education.

Article 33
You have the right to be protected from dangerous drugs.

Article 34
You have the right to be protected from sexual abuse.

Article 35
No-one is allowed to kidnap you or sell you.

Article 36
You have the right to protection from of any other kind of exploitation.

Article 37
You have the right not to be punished in a cruel or hurtful way.

Article 38
You have a right to protection in times of war. If you are under 15, you should never have to be in an army or take part in a battle.

Article 39
You have the right to help if you have been hurt, neglected, or badly treated.

Article 40
You have the right to help in defending yourself if you are accused of breaking the law.

Article 41
You have the right to any rights in laws in your country or internationally that give you better rights than these.

Article 42
All adults and children should know about this convention. You have a right to learn about your rights and adults should learn about them too.

Child Rights: Parents FAQ

These are questions we hear all the time from parents. They are totally legitimate questions and deserve thoughtful responses. So!! We teamed up with Drs. Katherine Covell and Brian Howe who are both Child Rights experts AND parents to help answer these questions.

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When young people learn about their rights they usually have an intuitive understanding that yes, they have rights but so do others.

Children who have learned about their rights in a rights respecting environment, compared with those who have not:

  • have a more accurate understanding of what it means to have rights and responsibilities

  • show greater acceptance of children who are different than themselves

  • have better relationships with their classmates and teachers

  • tend to have higher self-esteem

  • are less likely to be victimized and more likely to stand up for others

No! The UNCRC repeatedly upholds the important role parents have in the lives of children and says that governments must respect the responsibility of parents for providing guidance to their children.

Specifically, the Convention supports:

  • Parents/caregivers in raising their children, consistent with the evolving capacities of the child. (Article 5)

  • The recognition that the child has the right to preservation of identity, including nationality, name, and family relations. (Article 8.1)

  • The recognition that children have the right to know and, when possible, to be cared for by their parents. (Article 7.1)

  • The recognition that parents have the right to guide the religious development of their children. (Article 14)

  • The recognition that both parents have the common responsibility of raising their children. (Article 18)

They might, but like adults, children have the responsibility to respect the rights of others. Children tend to understand this. If they want their rights respected, they know they must also respect the rights of others. One of the aims of a child rights education is the development of respect for everyone, their values, and their culture.

They might try, and it is our role as adults to teach children how rights are implemented. If your child challenges you with knowledge of their rights in a way that is inappropriate, be heartened as this is a normal part of learning the difference between rights, needs, and wants. A child may want a snack and say that they have the right to food. These moments where your child is challenging you are teaching moments.

You can explain the difference between rights and wants. You can talk about how being a parent means that you have the responsibility to look out for their well-being, and spoiling a dinner appetite would not serve in upholding their rights.

When a child understands or says ‘that’s not fair’, they are ready to learn about rights.

The UNCRC is an excellent advocacy tool parents can use to support themselves and their children. Because the Canadian government ratified the UNCRC, there is a responsibility for the provincial and federal governments to support parents, caregivers, and families with implementing child rights.

This usually means providing supportive policies that enrich family life in the form of affordable childcare and parenting programs (like Nobody’s Perfect, My Tween and Me, and Parent-Child Mother Goose), legislating fair wages so families can afford the things they need, and creating systems to protect vulnerable children, all with the lens of putting the rights of young people and their families first.

Child Rights by Age Group

Supporting the Rights of Children in the Early Years

The early childhood sector in BC faces many challenges including:

Lack of funding directed towards improvements in early childhood development

  • An increase in private, profit-driven early childhood education and care, resulting in such services being unaffordable for most families
  • Inadequate quality early childhood care and education spaces and services for children under the age of 4
  • An absence of uniform training requirements for all child-care staff and of standards of quality care

This is not just troubling to those of us who serve children every day but was also flagged by the United Nations as a pressing human rights issue in Canada. As an organization that supports the rights of young children we want to share with you some ways you can use the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to advocate for the children and families that you serve.

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Did you know, Canada is tied for last when it comes to investment, quality, and availability of early childhood services in economically advanced countries? Read the UNICEF report.

You can TAKE ACTION for children in their Early Years in BC

  • Hang a child rights awareness poster in your office, home, or building to help make children’s healthy development part of your visual landscape.
  • Ask your elected officials (federal, provincial) how they are supporting children’s rights, especially around issues that affect you, your family, and your work.
  • Support the $10/day child care plan
  • Sign up for our child rights newsletter to stay informed about child rights issues in BC and Canada. We email 1 – 2 times per month and NEVER share your information.
  • Follow us on Twitter and find us on Facebook.

Further reading:

Learn More About Early Childhood Care

The Early Childhood Education Report 2014: It’s Time for Preschool measures provincial and territorial performance, including investments in and children’s access to early education and child care programs.

Child Rights & Early Education

Detailed clarification from the UN on how to implement Child Rights in Early Education

What Can Canada Do?

Early Childhood Education and Care Policy Country Report from the OECD

Generation Squeeze

In Canada, Governments spend just $12k on benefits and services per Canadian under 45, compared to nearly $45k for every retiree. Learn more about generational inequality and how young Canadians are being squeezed.

Supporting the Rights of Children in the Middle Years

Parenting children in the middle years

Children in their middle years (ages 6 – 12) are at a unique developmental stage where their bodies and minds are changing. They are learning who they are in the world, thinking more about others, seeking independence, and wondering about the future.

Kids in their middle years have a keen sense of fairness and this is the perfect time to teach them about their rights and responsibilities.

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Why should I teach my children about their rights?

When young people learn about their rights they usually have an intuitive understanding that yes, they have rights but so do others. Children who have learned about their rights in a rights respecting environment, compared with those who have not:

  • Have a more accurate understanding of what it means to have rights and responsibilities
  • Show greater acceptance of children who are different than themselves
  • Have better relationships with their classmates and teachers
  • Tend to have higher self-esteem
  • Are less likely to be victimized and more likely to stand up for others

Use your electoral voice for children in their middle years, whether you are voting at your PAC, municipal, provincial, or federal election, be your child’s ally and ask: what are you doing to improve the lives of young people?

Ask about strengthening services and programs that support the healthy development of your child in their middle years.

Including community centres, friendship centres, education programs, healthy activities, increased access to active transportation options, fair wages that would support your family, fair wages for the people who educate your kids, or anything else that is genuine and authentic that would have a meaningful impact on your family’s life.

Remember, you are the one who knows your child best and knows what would make your life better. Politicians will continue to pay attention to folks who are old enough to vote so if we don’t speak up for children together, no one will.

Supporting the Rights of Youth

Youth is defined in a number of different ways, however the rights outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child apply to anyone under the age of 19.

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Youth is a significant stage of development and represents an important transition period from the dependence of childhood to adulthood with increasing independence. Youth are shaping their identities, dealing with complex situations, and thinking about their futures. This is often the period during which young people enter the workforce for the first time, complete their compulsory education, and go through immense physical and mental growth and development. It is also the time during which young people are taking on more responsibilities and may be helping out in the household and caring for family members, while trying to manage school and work obligations.

Supporting a successful transition to adulthood requires respecting youth as individuals with rights. Often youth are viewed in terms of deficits or what they lack with regards to maturity. However, by taking an assets-based approach, youth can truly be nurtured to become active, engaged citizens with immense potential. Engaging youth in their communities empowers them, enables them to develop new skills and interests, and builds self-esteem and resiliency.